Man fishing in river or lake silhouette by sunrise and misty water

How to dress in layers for fly fishing

How you dress in layers for fly fishing is different than layering for other outdoor activities. Although the concepts are the same, the applications are not.

With fly fishing, you’re stationary in a frigid stream. Contrast this to carrying a backpack up a mountain trail or hiking through a meadow forest.

The fly fishing layering tips presented here will not only make your fly fishing activity more comfortable, they could save your life.


Your need for Homeostatis

Hemo what?

Essentially, your body needs to maintain homeostasis, which is essentially means that your core body temperature must be maintained within a narrow range, right around 98.6 degrees.

The great outdoors can be awesome fun, but knowing how to dress for all weather situations can make or break the experience.

Indoors, this is no problem. You set your home thermostat accordingly and dress as needed to maintain a comfortable body temperature.


Outdoors is a different situation. You no longer control the temperature via a thermostat, and atmospheric and radically changing conditions, from temperatures variations, to wind, sun, and rain, need to be addressed and managed only with the clothing you wear.

The methodology that allows you to manage your homeostasis, amid the variable and sometimes extreme atmospheric conditions, is know as layering.



Your body constantly produces heat.


Because heat is a byproduct of energy converting metabolism – the chemical processes that occur within all living organism in order to maintain life.

This chemical process is always occurring at some level just to sustain life and is known as your basal metabolism which is the minimal amount of energy necessary to maintain respiration, circulation, and other vital body functions while fasting and at total rest.

A primary mechanism to accomplish this is through the regulation of body heat production or thermo-regulation.

If external conditions are not managed, your body faces the possibility of falling out of homeostasis and possibly death as follows:

  • Hyperthermia  which is the condition of having a body temperature greatly above normal due to extreme hot conditions such as Death Valley, and
  • Hypothermia which is the condition of having an abnormally low body temperature, typically one that is dangerously low and results from prolonged exposure to cold, wet and windy conditions.


How your body looses heat

Whether hot or cold outside, your body loses heat through a variety of sources both physiological and environmental. The right layers combat each of them.

1. Evaporation
As the core temperature warms to about 100.4°F, the body starts perspiring. Sweat glands push salt-laden water to the surface of the skin. There, the moisture evaporates, lowering the temperature of the skin and cooling the blood at its surface. In intense exercise, the body can dump up to 85 percent of its excess heat in this way—up to three liters of sweat per hour in acclimatized, trained athletes. Base layers with good breathability and wicking will manage the moisture.

2. Convection
Cool air or water moving across the body strips away heat—we lose 10 percent or more of our heat this way, depending on the temperature of the wind or water and the speed at which it’s moving. That makes wind a key factor when deciding on the right layers. Shells serve as the primary wind-blocking layer.

3. Radiation
When the air temperature drops below a comfortable 68°F, radiation—heat dissipation through the air—accounts for the majority (65 percent) of our overall heat loss. Holding onto the right amount of heat is all about your insulation.

4. Conduction
Heat escaping through stationary solids or liquids (think sitting in a snowbank or hot sand, or standing around in a wet base layer) causes heat loss. Mitigation requires a group effort from your whole system: insulation for warmth and base layers  and shells to remain dry and protected.

5. Respiration
Our lungs add humidity to the air we exhale. In dry conditions, this equates to a slight loss of body heat. Insulation over the face helps to manage it when temperatures in dry climates get very low.


The body’s self regulating systems


To address hyperthermia conditions, your body cools itself by slowing down metabolism, circulating more blood out to your periphery and sweating.

Circulating more blood to the periphery transports excess heat out near your skin’s surface for radiating, conducting and convection into the air. Because heat is released during evaporation, sweat offers a substantial cooling benefit, except in humid air. Of course, there are numerous external mechanisms available that help adjust body heat as well, such as shade, wind, fans, and air conditioner. Many of these, however, are not available outdoors.

From a layering perspective, you need to be protected from the suns heat and UV’s, yet have clothing that both breathes and wicks your sweat in order to cool you off.

Typically loose fitting and lighter colored silk or polyester and cotton or linen long sleeve shirts and polyester long pants or shorts with polyester tights work best. Hats, especially with optic black material on the underside, work well to protect from the sun’s heat and reflecting UV waves. Polarized sunglasses also help in cutting the UV rays associated with hot climatic conditions.

Silk and polyester are both light, breathable and wick well. Silk, although extremely comfortable, does not wear well and polyester tends to absorb body order quickly. Cotton is comfortable but doesn’t wick well. Additionally, if wet and breezy it will overly cool the body causing a hypothermia condition. Finally shirts with cotton and bamboo offer breathability, wicking and UV protection.

Everyone’s sensitivity to heat and response to various layer concepts are different but I have found the following to be especially effective and it might be worthwhile to investigate some of these for your hot weather conditions.


To address hypothermia, your body naturally warms itself by speeding up metabolism, reducing peripheral blood flow and shivering.

Shivering is a triggered reflex that produces warmth because numerous small muscles are expending energy, thus giving off additional body heat.

From a layering perspective, the concepts are much more complicated than with hyperthermia conditions.


The modern layer system

The modern layer system consists of between 1 to 3 layers – base, middle and top layers.

  1. Base layer (underwear layer): wicks sweat off your skin, also may protect from UV rays
  2. Middle layer (insulating layer): retains body heat to protect you from the cold
  3. Outer layer (shell layer): shields you from wind and rain to maintain correct core temperatures

Layer materials – pros and cons

It’s helpful to understand the various materials used to produce layers. As with most complex problems, there are trade offs and technologies that continue to be developed that mitigate those trade offs.

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Some sample layer systems

Warm Seasons

In warm weather, you need protection from the sun’s UV rays, along and the ability to wick body moisture in order to maintain and cool your core temperature.

ExOfficio Give-N-Go shorts – The come in men’s and ladies styles and are a nylon/spandex synthetic which is breathable and treated with antimicrobials to resist orders. They wash easily, dry quickly and are extremely lightweight and packable.

Arc’teryx Motus Crew (ss or ls) – These lightweight and durable synthetic crew shirts, also available for men and women, are anti odor treated and offer UPF protection. Extremely lightweight, quick to dry and lightweight. They just make a great base layer, or;

Coolibar Crew shirts (ls) – These shirts combine cotton and viscose from bamboo to produce a comfortable shirt with a UPF 50+ rating. It is cotton so ensure you’re not headed to cold damp environments.

White Sierra Kalgoorlie Shirts – Typically you’ll want to wear a long sleeve shirt that both breathes and allows for some UPF protection. The White Sierra Kalgoorlie are really highly rated and offer enough protection yet provide for ease of movement. You can wear with or without the above crews depending on the conditions. They’re nylon so they’re not super breathable but they do work well.

prAna Vargas shorts and Patagonia Capilene baselayer – In warmer weather, you can wade with just your shorts and a pair of wading sandals, or if using your waders, the combination of shorts with a capilene baselayer is really comfortable. Of course you can just keep your jeans on but you will absorb water and the ambient temperature of the water can quickly make you uncomfortable.

Warm weather makes it easy to layer up. Remember to wear sunscreen and use a hat with a darkened under-brim as well as polarized glasses. Check out my recommendations in this post on fly fishing gear.

The only other item you will really need is a wind and rain proof jacket. Fly fishing requires a jacket that provides mobility and is not easily ripped due to errant fly hooks and tree branches. It’s also nice to have a hoody and large pockets. Unfortunately, this is where it starts to get a little expensive and jackets which are able to withstand abuse are not super lightweight. Two that I can recommend (in increasing cost) are the Outdoor Research Foray and the Arc’teryx Gamma MX Hoody.  Both meet all of the criteria for breathable wind and rain proof protection with the ability to move around. The issue with selecting a jacket is that it would be nice to just have one for all seasons. That involves a series of trade offs but if you can live with that, it may be much better than owning multiple jackets. An even more inexpensive option is the Arc’teryx Squamish Hoody which is breathable, wind and rain proof and much lighter.


Colder Seasons

Colder seasons entail using most of the same gear discussed in the warm season sample system above but with the addition of a mid layer.

Arc’teryx Delta LT Zip neck and  Patagonia Men’s better sweater 1/4 zip fleece – Both Arc’teryx and Patagonia offer quarter zip top fleece tops which are my preferred mid layers. You should consider a couple of weights since one of the drawbacks of fleece is that its warmth is relative to its thickness and it stays at that warmth. In other words, in order to cool down you’ll need a thinner layer.

The same principle pertains to fleece pants. Look at the offerings by Patagonia and others to find a pair that is comfortable for you.

Finally, the same choices as to a wind and rain jacket discussed above need to be determined.


Summary Recommendations for layering systems

  1. One of the problems with recommending different layer products is that each person’s metabolism is different. Some run hotter or colder than others. Thus in order to be comfortable you need to experiment with different products to determine which works for you. This is very individual and the need to return and try other products is critical. Amazon offers this ability probably better than any other retailer.
  2. Look for shirts that feature a tighter fit on the sleeve for cold weather gear. The reason for this is that nothing takes away body heat faster than a open sleeve.
  3. People bring too many layers as well as the wrong layers which is both expensive and heavy.  Try to find the minimal set of light clothing that will work in a broad range of conditions. It can be done!
  4. A good layering system is NOT about frequently changing layers. Quite the opposite, you should strive to minimize adding or removing layers!  A single set of well-selected clothes should work in a broad range of temperatures (from mid-20s °F to around 50 °F) without adding or removing layers. [* “shoulder season” clothing should get you down to +10º to 0º F]
  5. Overheating and sweating out clothes will get you very cold in the long run. Wet clothing is cold clothing and unhappiness. (And in cold weather it takes a very long time to dry, if ever.)
  6. Leave your shorts and short sleeved shirts at home. Long pants and long sleeved shirts are far better and more practical at protecting you from the brush, sun, and disease-carrying insects than sunscreen and insect repellents. The shorts/long fleece underwear system for under you waders is obviously an exception to this.
  7. Outdoor clothing manufactures change their offerings as often as automobile manufactures. If you find something you like and that works well for you, consider buying more since chances are it won’t be available later on.
  8. Finally, again, experiment. Your system will be very specific to you and your needs. Research and try different options. Also, don’t wait until your fishing trip to see if it works. Try it at home and outdoors.

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